A Shelter in the Storm

For those who enter the foster care system, a home is not a guarantee. For the nearly 30 percent of children who do not end up in a home, children’s homes and emergency shelters are only other options. Located in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Hillcrest Children’s Home is one of the many facilities that house children who cannot be placed with a foster family.

Founded in 1944 by Gladys Hinson and the Assemblies of God church, Hillcrest started as a single house providing a home for children without one. Today, the facility sits on 55 acres of land and houses dozens of children ranging in ages from 5 to 18, with additional transitional living accommodations for young adults between 18 and 21 years old.

Hillcrest stands out among many children’s homes in the area because every child placed here has a mental health referral. Tammy Nelson, a registered nurse and health services manager at Hillcrest, believes that most of these kids would have struggled in a traditional foster home.

“We’ve had three kids who were adopted in the last two months brought back,” she said.

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Nelson, who spent the earliest parts of her life at Hillcrest, said that many of the children who come to the facility have issues related to their biological families that prevent them from functioning well in traditional foster homes.

“They are loving, and they are perfect, and they are dangerous,” said Nelson. “We start to build them up and set them up for success.”

Each child who comes into Hillcrest is assigned a case worker who works as an advocate and a pseudo-parent for the time the child is on campus. Lance Nelson, a case manager at Hillcrest and Tammy’s husband, strives to be a stable presence in the lives of his assigned kids.

“We function as their guardian here,” said Nelson. “We advocate for our kids in all the arenas of their life.”

While at Hillcrest, the children live in one of eight different cottages, which are divided up by age and gender. These cottages provide family-style living where a small group of children lives with house parents. The cottages function as typical homes where the kids interact with their house parents while learning life skills.

“We try to make them more self-sufficient,” said Taryn Cicero, a member of the Hillcrest staff. “We try to teach them different things.”

For children who are about to age out of the system, Hillcrest offers a Transitional Living Center (TLC) on campus that allows young adults to experience independence while still maintaining a support system.

“It’s a weird dynamic for these kids and is a neat time,” said Cody Elliot, a case manager at Hillcrest, who with help from his wife Lonnie, runs the TLC program. “They’re being flung out for the first time, so it’s kind of fun to help teach them how life works.”

While Hillcrest is designed to give kids a safe place to live, the larger goal is to give kids a chance to lead a productive life.

“It is about equipping the home to set the children up for success,” said Nelson.

For Nelson and much of the other staff, housing children is a reluctant reality as many of the foster homes in the state aren’t equipped for these types of placements.

“The majority of our kids are un-fosterable,” said Nelson. “Our goal in our treatment program is to get them there, where they can function well in a foster home.”

As Hillcrest looks towards the future, the children’s home looks to bring in more children who aren’t fit for typical placements, working to allow them to reach their potential.

For more information about Hillcrest, visit their website here.